In a related posting, I made the argument for making judicious use of on-screen hosts / mentors in eLearning programs. There are a number of compelling reasons for doing so, but there are also some downsides – particularly if content changes are likely to require frequent re-shoots of the host’s commentary.
As an alternative to using a flesh-and-blood host, I raised the possibility of using an avatar – a photo-realistic animated character. Animation software has come a long way in recent years, making astoundingly realistic computer-generated images available at a reasonable cost. More basic animation lacking some of the polish of photo-realism has also proven to be effective in creating hosts as well as characters in scenarios that demonstrate skills and procedures.
What are the pros and cons of taking the animated route?
- Academic studies underline the value of virtual characters in fostering improved learner engagement, focus, trust, and retention (see, for instance: Byron Reeves, The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters).
- There is more control over the appearance of an avatar than a human presenter, making it easier to match the avatar’s visual characteristics and voice to the demographics and preferences of the target audience.
- There is still a Wow! factor in photo-realistic animation that helps to engage learners.
- Making changes to what animated characters say or do is generally faster and less costly than with live actors.
- Once they have been introduced in a training program, animated characters have the potential to play other roles within an organization, such as becoming part of its learning “brand”. It’s a good idea to “commit” to a character once it has been introduced.
- An avatar may not have the same credibility as a live presenter, especially if the live presenter is a respected staff member or an acknowledged expert.
- “Cartoony” avatars can be a turn-off for some adult learners.
- Some viewers find imperfections in lip-syncing or body movement distracting.
- Unless you develop in-house expertise in using animation software, you will probably be tied to a third-party production company for the life of your training application. Make sure that they’re going to be around for a while!
As with live hosts, it is important to test avatars with representative audiences before implementation. Minor changes to the way a character looks, sounds, or behaves can greatly increase its acceptance among learners.
An avatar should appear on screen only when there is a good reason for it to be there. Otherwise, it may actually interfere with achieving learning goals and add unnecessary expense to the production budget.
Should an avatar be your first choice as an on-screen mentor? All things being equal, my preference is still live presenters. However, in the right circumstances, avatars can be a wonderful addition to the eLearning experience.